You rarely forget your first glimpse into the forbidden world of adults. Perhaps it was reading a banned book or sneaking into an R rated film. For me, quaint as it might seem now, it was getting to see the episodes of I Claudius that featured the Roman Emperor Caligula.
You see, long ago in a time before cable, Masterpiece Theater was premiering the BBC adaptation of the Robert Graves novel I Claudius. Most of the episodes aired at the regular time but the ones depicting Caligula’s reign were shown way past my bedtime in an attempt to discourage young viewers. My parents, seeing I was addicted to the series, relented, and I was exposed to John Hurt’s mesmerizing, disturbing, and slightly campy version of the infamous emperor.
Every since viewing that series, I’ve had a soft spot for the whole dysfunctional Julio-Claudian dynasty. With this in mind, I was pretty much destined to check out Caligula: A Biography by Aloys Winterling.
As advertised, this new work pieces together the life and brief reign of Caligula. It is a masterful attempt to sift fact from fiction and come up with some kind of unified portrait. As the author acknowledges, this is no easy task due to the lack of reliable sources. The few accounts that have survived were written a generation after Caligula’s time and by members of the senate. Since one of Caligula’s more infamous, yet humorous, deeds was to nominate his favorite horse to become a senator, he doesn’t come off too well in these accounts.
Thankfully, Winterling doesn’t simply dismiss every fanciful tale as a matter of bias. What fun would that be after all? Instead he engages in an entertaining attempt to find out what was really going on. Did Caligula really smother the aged Emperor Tiberius with a pillow? After becoming Emperor, did he march to the English Channel, declare war on Neptune, and collect sea shells as war booty? And what about those sisters of his?
If you want a reasoned and fascinating attempt to parse the truth of these claims and more, definitely read Caligula: A Biography.
If, instead, you want all the dirt and the truth be damned, head straight to the source and check out Lives of the Twelve Caesars by Suetonius. Come for the decadent and insane Caligula, but stay for the rational but ruthless Augustus, the dour and despairing Tiberius, the sympathetic but weak-willed Claudius and the less-said-about-him-the-better Nero. As John Hurt’s version of Caligula would say: people really are despicable.